The Court Houses of Westmoreland County, Pa.
From: History of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania
By: John N. Boucher
Published By: The Lewis Publishing Company
New York, Chicago, 1906

The Court Houses. - County Home.

The court house which by our present generation is known as "the old court house," was built in 1854. This was really, in one sense of the word, the fourth court house of the county, though it is usually regarded as the second. The first place of holding court when the county was formed, as has been seen, was Robert Hanna's house. While it was not owned by the county, it served as a court house for thirteen years, and they were very important years in our formative period. The next court house was the temporary structure built when the county seat was first removed to Greensburg. The next was a much more substantial building, which has been described in these pages, and which was completed in 1801 and stood until 1854. On May 6th of that year the county commissioners began to remove it preparatory to erecting a new one. The business of the county had outgrown the old one, and in pursuance of a presentment from the grand jury, with the sanction of the court, measures were taken for the erection of another.

The courts were held in the Methodist church from the time the old court house was taken down until the new one was ready for occupancy. The contract for the new court house and jail was let to Bell & Arnold in 1853, for $39,614. The plans were prepared by an architect named J. Edgar. On further consultation the commissioners saw fit to reject the plans of J. Edgar, and substitute a plan, furnished by Samuel Sloan, an architect of Philadelphia. Sloan's plans were more comprehensive and more expensive, and this required another contract which was made in 1854, by the terms of which the county was to pay $46,700, and a further sum for such improvements or changes as they should make.

On October 24, 1854, the corner stone of the court house was laid with due ceremony. Many prominent citizens of the county were present to participate, for the event had been widely heralded. Prayers were offered by Revs. Giesey and Valentine, and addresses were delivered by Henry D. Foster and Edgar Cowan, two of the ablest lawyers our county has yet produced. A copper box containing copies of the census of 1850, the county papers of that week, Justice Coulter's description of the burning of Hannastown, and other matter which they thus sought to hand down to further generations, was placed in the corner stone. It was on the southeast corner of the court house, on the corner of Main and West Pittsburgh streets.

The commissioners and the contractors did not get along well together, and in August, 18J5, the contract with Bell & Arnold was rescinded by mutual consent of both parties. In the same month a new contract was made with Johnston & McFarland - A. A. Johnston, of Youngstown, and John McFarland, of Ligonier, Pennsylvania. They agreed that the court house should be finished and ready for use in time to hold the May term of court in it in 1856, and that all of the work should be completed by August of that year. They were to receive $27,688 for their work. They performed the work practically as they stipulated. There were several other smaller contracts in addition to the main ones, such as for shelves, wainscoting, railings, etc., and it is therefore difficult to determine at this late day the exact entire cost. It was about $90,000, perhaps a few thousand more rather than less than this sum, but it did not reach $100,000.

The court house was erected on the same lot which its predecessors had occupied, viz.: the northwest corner of Main and West Pittsburgh streets. It had a beautiful facade on its southern end. It was about twenty feet from the pavement line on both streets. Its dimensions were one hundred and thirty feet in length along Main street, by sixty two feet in width along West Pittsburgh street. Two of its sides, the eastern and southern, were built of cut sandstone, while the other two were of brick, covered with cement to resemble stone. The approach to the building from the south was by twelve or fourteen large stone steps which extended along the whole end of the building. The main passage on the first floor was cruciform, the stem extending north and south from end to end of the building, with the transept in the center of the building, running east and west. The cruciform passage was ten feet wide throughout, and was very prettily floored with tile. The lower story was used entirely for offices of the county officers. There were two stairways leading to the second story. A large double one at the south end was used by the public generally, while a smaller one at the north end was used mostly by the judges, attorneys, etc. The main part of the second floor was used as a courtroom. It was about fifty four by sixty two feet, and in addition to being used as a court room was used for all kinds of public meetings. It was for many years the largest room in Greensburg, but by political meetings, public lectures and even during the trial of important or sensational cases, was frequently crowded to overflowing. The ceiling was twenty four feet high, and the acoustic properties were always bad. The facade on the south end and the large dome surmounting all, added greatly to the appearance of the building, and rendered it indeed a most handsome structure. It was used until the business of the county again outgrew it, and then after several presentments from grand juries practically condemning it, it was finally razed to the ground in the summer of 1901.

In connection with it when it was built was also a jail and a residence for the sheriff of the county. Prior to its being built in 1854, the sheriff rented his own house, and sometimes did not live near the jail. But a new law provided that the county should furnish a house for him, in close proximity with the jail, and hence the building of the sheriff's residence in connection with the jail in 1854. They were west of the court house with an alley between it and them. They were both inferior buildings, and were condemned by several grand juries long before the court house built at the same time had passed its day of usefulness. They were both taken away in 1882, and a splendid double structure costing about $150,000 was erected in 1883. While this was being done the prisoners were kept at the county home, two and one half miles south of Greensburg.

The old method of maintaining the poor pursued by Westmoreland county authorities, that is, of boarding them over the county at such terms as could be arranged for, was neither satisfactory nor economical. Accordingly, on the passage of the act of April 5, 1849, a new and better system was inaugurated. The act allows the purchase of a farm, the erection of buildings, and provides for the election of directors, the appointment of a physician. etc. By the act which applied to Westmoreland county alone, Benjamin Bverlv, John Kuhns, Sr., John Trout, Samuel Hill, Thomas Trees, John C. Plumber, Henry McBride, Robert Hitchman, Joseph Budd, John McFarland, John Hill, Joseph Cook, Joseph Jack, John A. Hays and Jacob Dible were appointed commissioners and charged with the duty of purchasing, on or before the first day of January, 1850, such real estate as they thought proper for the accommodation of the poor of Westmoreland county. Another section provided that a vote should be taken in October, 1849, in the county, with tickets marked "For a Poor House," and also tickets marked "Against a Poor House." If a majority voted in favor of the poor house the act was to take effect, otherwise to be considered null and void. The election was held, and the people decided in favor of a poor house, and the commissioners named in the act proceeded to carry out its intents and purposes. They purchased one hundred and eighty acres from William Snyder, about two and one half miles south of Greensburg, in Hempfield township, for $6,000. They took possession of it on April 1, 1850. Three directors were elected in the fall of 185o, who proceeded to erect a building on this land suitable for the reception of the poor of the county. They expended $9,092.24. It was a very creditable building considering the small amount of money expended on it, and, with a few outbuildings added later, served its purpose very well. But on August 20, 1862, it was totally destroyed by fire. The contents of the building were nearly all saved. The unfortunate inmates were brought to Greensburg and kept in the jail till arrangements could be made for them elsewhere.

In a few days a contract was entered into with Lyon & Bierer to erect a new building, or rather to rebuild the old one, for the brick walls had been but slightly injured by the fire. The new structure cost $5,716.50. It was one hundred and fifty feet long and fifty feet wide, and was three stories high. A writer in 1865 speaks of the abundance of wood and stone coal on the farm, and says:

"The house is therefore Well heated at a small cost. The inmates have good clothes and shoes when necessary. They are allowed three full meals each day, consisting of bread, soup and vegetables and flesh. At two of the meals they are given fresh meat and coffee. One plug of tobacco is given every week to those who use the weed, and to those who work more tobacco is given according to their needs. When heavy work is to be clone such as harvesting and thrashing, the steward gives whisky in moderate quantities to those who require some stimulation. There are one hundred and fifteen men, women and children in the poor house, and the number increases in the winter time and diminishes in the summer time. Of the present inmates forty four are women, fifty men and twenty one are children. There are twelve insane and idiotic women and girls, and six insane and idiotic men and boys."

This second building was destroyed by fire in December, 1878, and immediately afterwards a much larger and more modern building, the one now in use, was constructed on the same location.


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